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Japanese Bomb Balloon

3/30/2005:

An unmanned, Japanese, bomb balloon landed in the Minto-Warsaw area of Walsh County on this date in 1945, but the incident was kept secret until World War II ended five months later. On August 16th, the Fargo Forum reported, “Several other balloons were sighted in the air, and reported to the army authorities, at Fargo, Park River and Mandan, it can now be revealed. Army intelligence officers showed Fargo Forum editorial department workers pictures of the Walsh County balloon, which was dismantled and taken to Fort Snelling. Neither the pictures nor the information could be used at the time under the censorship code.”

It was later learned the Japanese released approximately 9,000 balloons, expecting 10% would survive the trip to successfully explode and start fires across the U.S. The bag portions of the balloons were made of layered rice paper strengthened with a type of waxy sizing that made them durable and waterproof. These were inflated with hydrogen that was self-regulating, depending on altitude, and traveled 80 to 120 miles per hour at around 30,000 feet. Each carried five bombs, four fire-starters and a 33-pound fragmentation type anti-personnel bomb. It took 3-4 days for them to cross the Pacific – they were timed to explode sometime after that time-frame.

The balloon in Walsh County was lodged in the top of a tall tree and was estimated to have been 35' across and 90' tall when inflated. Some of the fire cartridges had already exploded, but a number of unfired fuse plugs still remained in the mechanism.

The Forum reported, “Details of the strange balloon attacks, hitherto secret to keep the enemy from learning the results, were disclosed today with relaxation of censorship. At the end of July nearly 230 of the lethal balloons, or their exploded remnants, had been recovered... Many more...are being recovered in isolated areas, where unexploded bombs remain a menace...”

Captain Vernon L. Scott was commandant of the 573rd army air base unit in Fargo and was “associated with the detection of the first identified” Japanese balloon found in America – it was discovered earlier when he was stationed in Montana. “We searched for them by plane,” he said. “Our instructions were to get over them and shoot them down, out in the open, in order to ground them before they reached urban areas where they could do great harm.” Scott said the balloons were nasty in other ways, as well. “Even the shroud cords,” he said, “would be chemically treated so that whoever went to examine the balloon and touched such cords would suffer painful and serious burns.”

Writer Greg Goebel says, “Fighters scrambled to intercept the balloons, but they had little success; (they were too high and) surprisingly fast, and the fighters destroyed fewer than 20.”

On May 5th, one balloon exploded in Oregon, killing 6 civilians. Goebel writes, “Japanese propaganda broadcasts announced great fires and an American public in panic, declaring casualties as high as 10,000, but the (people) killed in Oregon were the only casualties inflicted by the enemy on the American mainland in World War II. The press blackout was lifted after the deaths to ensure that the public was warned.”

According to the Forum, however, that blackout wasn’t lifted until five months later. In fact, the wife and daughter of Harry Drews, one of the paper’s printers, spotted a bomb balloon above Fargo in June. They told the Forum it was at about 2,000 feet as they watched it float over town, across the NDSU campus and then over Hector Airport. . . but it was a story the newspaper couldn’t tell until August.

Sources: Fargo Forum, August 16, 17 and 19, 1945; Greg Goebel, Balloon Bombs Against the U.S., Axis History Factbook (http://www.axishistory.com/index.php?id=932)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm